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A Thought About Carolina: What 2008 and 2009 Tell Us About 2011

The Carolina Panthers fell apart last year after a decade of ranging from average to very good under John Fox, including two championship game appearances and another 12-4 season just two years earlier. Their collapse made me wonder: does it matter how a team did in the two years prior to a horrible season, in determining how they bounce back?

So, I used the pro-football-reference team game finder to locate all teams that went 3-13 or worse in a season since 1990. I kicked out the first two years of the expansion Cleveland Browns, and looked at the remaining 41 teams to compare how they played (by simple rating) and how many wins they had in the two seasons prior to that 13+ loss season.

As it turns out, yes, knowing that the Carolina Panthers went 20-12 over the previous two seasons means we should shade them to be slightly better than your typical really bad team in 2011. First, though, we want to know what is typical. As it turns out, the average team that won 3 or fewer games in a season finishes 6-10 the next year (which is just another way of illustrating why Overs on teams with win projections under 6 are a good idea).

Focusing only on teams that won at least half their games in the two years before the collapse, those previous winning teams won 6.2 games the next season–slightly better than the average. However, if we look at point differentials rather than just win totals, it improves further. Teams that were above the league average the previous two seasons (as Carolina was at +4.7 points over average in 2008-2009) won 6.6 games the next season.

However, Carolina didn’t just have an unlucky season in losing a bunch of close games–they were really bad and according to the simple rating system, were -13.2 points below the league average in 2010. That sizeable collapse from being above average to that far below is the largest such collapse since 1990. Here are the five other teams with similar dramatic dropoffs:

  • 1990 Cleveland- went from a playoff team the previous two years to 3-13 (-13.0 points below average). In Bill Belichick’s first year, they bounced back to 6-10, and near league average.
  • 2004 San Francisco- The 49ers had won 17 games the previous two years, but were dismantled due to salary cap reasons. They fell to 2-14 (-13.6 points below average) and the following year hired Mike Nolan and drafted Alex Smith and didn’t get much better, going 4-12.
  • 1991 Indianapolis- The Colts had been roughly average the previous two years, going 15-17. They were horrible, going 1-15 (-17.3 points below average). They fired Ron Meyer, brought in Ted Marchibroda, and bounced back to a somewhat fluky 9-7 season (still -7.0 points below average).
  • 1994 Houston- Houston let Warren Moon go after winning 22 games the previous two years (the only team that won more games than Carolina the two seasons before dropping to 3-13 or worse), and as mentioned in the Minnesota Vikings post, went with Cody Carlson, Billy Joe Tolliver and Bucky Richardson at quarterback. They went 2-14, fired Jack Pardee, and retained interim coach Jeff Fisher. The next year, they went 7-9.
  • 2001 Buffalo- After winning 19 games in two seasons, the Bills fired Wade Phillips, hired Gregg Williams, and dropped to 3-13. The next year, they traded for Drew Bledsoe and went 8-8.

Those five teams won 6.8 games the next year. Carolina, by the way, is going off the board at 4.5 wins this year. I think they’ll go 6-10 against what appears to be a tough but manageable schedule, though doing a little better than that with a late run as the team improves wouldn’t surprise me. It’s really, really hard to have a season where you lose 13 games or more in this league, usually resulting from a perfect storm of things, such as really bad luck, serious injuries, or hiring Matt Millen. Doing it two years in a row–not likely.

Cam Newton will be inconsistent as a rookie, but will be an upgrade over what the passing game did last year because, well, as Kim McQuilken is my witness, it can’t possibly be worse. The offense also played without RT Jeff Otah all year, a run blocking tackle who was key to the outstanding rushing game from the previous two years. DeAngelo Williams was hurt, and the team had no quality receiving options behind Steve Smith. They’ve added Legedu Naanee at receiver from San Diego, and both Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen at tight end, to a position that has been a hole in the passing game in Carolina for years. Those aren’t wow moves, but upgrade the positions.

Defense wasn’t the issue for the most part last year; the offense put them in such horrible positions by being inept. The linebacking corp is actually a strength, led by Jonathan Beason. The middle of the offensive line is still a liability, but I think they can overcome that with Newton’s mobility threatening and opening running lanes for the backs. Last year was a perfect storm in Carolina, and though I wasn’t a big fan of the DeAngelo Williams re-signing at the price as a long term move for the franchise, in the short term, having a happier Steve Smith and the Williams/Stewart combo to go with more complementary receivers will be a positive.

Enough shadows of 2008 and 2009 still exist in Charlotte to think this team can bounce back quickly in 2011 and become at least competitive.

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[photo via Getty]

 

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